``Please,'' Hakeem Olajuwon said to himself. ``Don't let them be Muslims.''
In a community as large and diverse as Houston, for years his has been the most recognizable face of Islam. A gentleman warrior on the basketball court, a soft-spoken man of peace off it, Olajuwon never has proselytized on religion, yet never backed down from an opportunity to share the tenets of his abiding faith.
Love. Respect. Civility. Responsibility.
But there, in the images and news reports, there was a different kind of damage, yet just as insidious, as the terrorist raids on New York and Washington.
``My reaction, beyond the sadness for the lives that were lost, is that this is a very big setback for us,'' Olajuwon said. ``The Muslims in America are now the images of the crime and this fulfills the stereotype.
``It puts us in a very bad position, all the way back to almost the beginning, to having to explain to a country where we are still in the great minority that the actions of a few cannot be allowed to represent all Muslims.''
The fanatics such as Osama bin Laden and his followers can twist the foundation of the second-most widely practiced religion in the world into something incomprehensible and obscene.
There have been reports of vandalism at mosques in the aftermath of the tragedy as tension and a desire for revenge grow. So, too, do the fears of Muslims to go out in public.
``Please, don't put us all together with them,'' Olajuwon said. ``Not only is it unfair, but it would be incorrect. Look at the bombing in Oklahoma City. It was committed by someone who would represent himself to be a Christian. But we do not blame that act on Christianity.
``We are part of the same community. We have been exposed to the same danger. There were Muslims who were killed inside the World Trade Center. There were Muslim firefighters who died trying to save people.''
Olajuwon's celebrity over 20 years in our midst makes him familiar, nonthreatening. But that is not the case with his friends and neighbors and relatives in Islam.
``That is more reason why we must be out in public, letting the world see that we are hurting too,'' Olajuwon said.
Olajuwon cringes, too, at the term ``Islamic fundamentalist.''
``Fundamentals are the basics, the foundation,'' he said. ``The five pillars of Islam are to recognize God as supreme, to pray five times a day, to fast during the holy month of Ramadan, to give charity to the poor and to visit the holy city of Mecca. How do these fundamentals translate to terrorism? These are not fundamentalists. They are extremists.''
Olajuwon watched the memorial prayer service from Washington, D.C., on television, listened to the words of the Muslim imam, the Jewish rabbi, the Catholic priest, the Protestant minister.
``I heard the same message,'' Olajuwon said. ``We are in this together.''